Vanessa Whitaker still remembers the look in the firefighters’ eyes.
It was December 2007, and Whitaker — hired earlier that year as administrative assistant for the City of Middletown Division of Fire Department — was told her childhood home that she purchased and lived in until she separated from her husband had caught fire. When she arrived at the scene, and saw the extensive damage to her family home, she was “devastated,” she said.
Then she saw the look on the firefighters’ faces.
“It was like they were sorry they couldn’t save my house,” she said.
Whitaker said Jon Harvey, then president of the local firefighters’ union Local 336, presented her with a check to cover her insurance deductible, and several firefighters visited her in the coming days.
“That’s family,” she said.
Last week, Whitaker left her firefighter family when she retired after 12 years there, and 26 years with the City of Middletown. Whitaker, 66, said she had worked for 50 years, was never unemployed and “it was time” to retire, though she’s training her replacement, Kelly Short.
Assistant Fire Chief Tom Snively said Whitaker, a 1971 Middletown High School graduate, will be “tough to replace” because of the quality of her work and her close relationship with the firefighters.
“She’s like a mother figure,” Snively said.
When the administrative assistant position opened, there were more than 100 applicants and 30 were interviewed, Snively said. Early in the process, Whitaker separated herself from the others, he said.
“We knew she was the person,” he said.
City Manager Doug Adkins praised Whitaker for her commitment to the city and her work ethic. He said she left her “footprint and style” in several departments and “improved the process.”
It was reassuring, Adkins said, to know Whitaker was the one handling his requests for information from the fire department. He made one call, then “ignored” potential follow-up, he said.
“I knew it was taken care of,” he said. “That’s the best you can ask for. Professional people doing their jobs.”
For the 12 years, Whitaker answered the phones at the fire headquarters, handled payroll, scheduling and invoices. There are 79 firefighters and one administrative assistant. She was a one-woman department. So she scheduled for family vacations around work. She has no regrets.
“It was a job where I truly felt appreciated,” she said. “I knew that I was serving my community.”
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